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The power of holding hands

Holding Hands 7

When I was a little girl, I held hands with my friends. It was a sign of companionship and togetherness, one that wordlessly affirmed the strong force that is female friendship. As I grew from a girl into a woman, I started to get a lot of cultural messages, implicit and explicit, that holding hands was no longer acceptable between friends because it was now assumed to be romantic, reserved for those who are “more than friends.” Suddenly, this way to be close to those I love was sexualized. Hand holding between any two people is beautiful when used as a romantic gesture. But it grieves me, as it should grieve us all, that our culture is so hypersexualized that just about anything we do stands the possibility of being perceived as sexual. This is especially true for women. A simple gesture that in my childhood served as a means of human connection is now treated as sexual, and all its other meanings—like unity, strength, and togetherness—seem to fade away in the eyes of the world.

Not wanting my friends or those around us to misinterpret a gesture of friendship as something more, I stopped holding their hands. I more or less stopped connecting with my friends through touch altogether after childhood because I didn’t want to “give the wrong idea.” When we lose social permission to hold hands as an expression of sisterhood, all women lose something. As a disabled woman, I have felt this loss uniquely and profoundly.

I was born with cerebral palsy, and I spend most of my time in a power wheelchair. I view my wheelchair as a tool of freedom, as natural to me as a leg or an arm. I do not resent my wheelchair or see it as confining. Any metaphors likening my chair to a metal prison will be swiftly rejected. However, it cannot be denied that being seated on an electronic throne of metal, plastic, and overpriced foam affects my relationship with physical touch. I live in a world that does not even know how to look at me, much less touch me. It is often difficult for me to give hugs, and there is always a silent collection of phrases swirling above my head when I do: don’t trip over my footplate, watch the joystick, oh my god; did I poke you with the screw on my armrest? The hug is further complicated when given to another friend in a wheelchair. Joystick panels must be swung out. Wheels must be angled perfectly. The chairs, as our mothers have sternly reminded us since childhood, must be off. The ritual usually ends with both of us collapsing in laughter as we realize that most of the hug has been received by the other person’s chair. More often than not, I find myself saying, “Sorry, I couldn’t really reach you.”

When the greeter, disabled or not, is faced with the quirky dance involved in achieving physical closeness with me, it frequently seems easier to settle for a quick wave or a kiss blown across the room and caught. These gestures, too, are affectionate and kind, but nothing can take the place of human touch. My steadily decreasing mobility has led to more and more time in my wheelchair. My physical connection to others these days is largely shaped by their ability to learn the contours of my beloved chair and reach me without nudging a switch. Gone are the days are sitting on the floor or sharing the bench seat in the back of the car.

Holding hands, however, is something I can always do. Through all the phases of declining mobility, holding another’s hand has always provided connection. So when I grew up, and society told me “Friends don’t hold hands,” I became isolated from yet another way of being with people.

I have always felt that my peers in the sisterhood of disability possess an understanding about this. I have long noticed that in large groups of disabled friends, it is not uncommon for people to hold hands. I have fond memories of holding hands with friends at summer camp for disabled youth, where everyone seemed to perceive what the world outside could not—holding hands did not have to come with assumptions of romance. For us, it was often a symbol of camaraderie when our mobility made it difficult to express support for each other through physical closeness. Since it is a social norm for friends to hold hands as children and not as adults, I am well aware that some people without disabilities would mistakenly attribute this to disabled adults being “childlike,” a rampant and false stereotype. Instead, I think of holding hands as a gesture not of childlike naiveté, but of solidarity and friendship among my crip sisters. I often count it as a display of cultural oneness, a way to proudly adapt our togetherness to our disabled bodies.

Most of the time we are a minority in a world dominated by able-bodied expectations. Because society makes life difficult for those who are different, conforming to those expectations sometimes feels necessary to survive. Unless I find myself in one of those rare and precious places where disabled people are the norm, I seldom hold hands with my friends anymore. I look for other ways to celebrate the “us-ness” of our friendships, heeding one of the many rules etched into my brain when I grew from a girl to a woman.

But I often wish things were different. I wish that touch—good, kind, gentle touch between women—could be just that. I long for it to be accepted as a beautiful expression of human love, not just sexual love. For me, holding hands is not merely about romance. It’s about closeness. It is a central bridge between others and me that has said I am with you at every time of life even as my mobility ebbs.

Female friends “don’t hold hands.” But we ought to. It’s time for all women to reclaim the gesture, as so many disabled women already have. Doing so would merely affirm what we already know: There is no greater power in the world than female friendship, and we have the right to celebrate it in whatever way we choose.

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